Case 39 is a tired, meandering, ridiculous train wreck of a horror movie, a distinction I’m sure must have contributed to its delayed release. Shot way back in late 2006, it was originally scheduled to open on February 8, 2008 before quickly getting pushed back to February 22, then to August 22, then to April 10, 2009, then to January 1, 2010. After opening in Europe, Latin America, and most of the known world during the latter half of 2009 and into 2010, it has finally found its way into North American theaters in time for Halloween. This would be fine were it not for the fact that it isn’t particularly scary. Actually, it runs much deeper than that – it isn’t particularly good, period; it begins as a routine thriller only to get progressively more preposterous until the final scene, which is so implausible and unsatisfying that it begs the question of who thought it would work.
The plot centers on a social worker named Emily (Renée Zellweger), who, despite having thirty-eight active cases, is given one more by her boss (Adrian Lester). Here enters the Sullivan family. The parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) are homely, moody, and frightening people, their first meeting with Emily characterized by the mom’s consistently low voice and the dad’s piercing stare. The ten-year-old daughter, Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), appears meek and withdrawn, afraid to say what she’s really feeling around her parents. Emily is immediately taken with her, and it seems she’s just as taken with Emily. One night, Lilith calls Emily in desperation. Panicked, Emily and her friend, Detective Barron (Ian McShane), rush to Lilith’s home, where they rescue her from being burned alive in the oven.
Emily is at first reluctant, but out of guilt (for reasons I won’t reveal), she petitions to be Lilith’s foster parent, a transition that may be legal but hardly seems likely considering the extraordinary conflict of interest. At first, things go fairly well. Then, gradually, things start to go wrong. Another one of Emily’s cases, a boy around the same age as Lilith, brutally murders his parents, and it seems it happened right after a phone call was made from Emily’s house. Emily certainly didn’t make the call. Did Lilith? Certainly not – the voice at the other end was that of a man. Nevertheless, Lilith begins to exhibit odd behavior. She goes through Emily’s pictures without asking permission. She drops her shy and innocent act in the presence of a child psychologist, Doug (Bradley Cooper), who happens to be Emily’s boyfriend. She tells him she has bad thoughts about certain people, including him. She then asks him what it is he fears most.
In due time, Emily is watching the recorded testimony of Lilith’s mother, who says that people in her daughter’s life tend to die. Not by her hand, mind you; they just die. Are her parents the crazy people Emily thought them to be, or do they know something Emily doesn’t? There must have been a reason, after all, that they tried to barricade themselves in their own bedroom with deadbolts. Why is Lilith suddenly turning into a manipulative, mean-spirited little girl? And who’s making phone calls that seem to foretell someone’s death?
Perhaps you think the ads have been hinting at a specific turn of events. You’re wrong. Pay no attention to the trailer or even the poster; both are incredibly deceiving, and I suspect it was an intentional move, made in an effort to draw in a bigger crowd. There’s a big difference between keeping plot points hidden and manufacturing them for the purposes of a marketing campaign. Ultimately, I paid to see something that didn’t deliver as it promised. This is not merely wrong, it’s reprehensible. I can only speculate that the trailer was edited with footage of an alternate storyline, one that paints a very different picture of Lilith. Did the filmmakers reshoot and/or delete specific scenes after a test screening? That may account for the delayed release, although it certainly doesn’t excuse lying as a promotional tool.
In any case, what Emily eventually discovers about Lilith will hardly surprise anyone. What is surprising is the vague, distant way with which her secret is revealed; it’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that audiences wouldn’t care and thus didn’t care themselves. Had there been more to this character, had there been some shred of originality and development, the ending might have actually provided a payoff. Alas, Lilith is hopelessly predictable, and as such, the final scene plays as a cold, stale imitation of a traditional horror movie confrontation. It also goes at such a brisk pace that there’s hardly a moment to take in what we have just seen. More reshooting, I bet. The fact that Case 39 was delayed for so long should have been enough of an indicator that the filmmakers had a bad film on their hands. Let’s hope that releasing it theatrically and watching it die a slow death has finally clued them in.